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'Davids' deliver stand on prayer

A group conducts a prayer session, holds signs and praises Jesus outside Forest Ridge Elementary as a message to the School Board.

[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
More than 100 fundamental Christians and members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes joined hands and prayed together outside Forest Ridge Elementary School Tuesday evening before a School Board hearing to discuss religion in the schools issue. At left, Frank Shevitz, 48, of Beverly Hills, brought a sign with him. He has a child at Lecanto High.

By ALEX LEARY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001


CITRUS HILLS -- "This day will never come again," Megan Vonderhaar coached the young men and women before her. "If you have faith, a little bit of faith, and you stand up, then God will be with you."

Standing hand in hand, the legion of Christians outside Forest Ridge Elementary School provided a striking tableau, a reminder of how deep the issue over school prayer touches this county.

The prayer session, which Vonderhaar organized, attracted more than 100 people, young and old. Casting themselves as Davids taking on Goliath, they held signs praising Jesus, sang songs and prayed.

Though the School Board dealt with more limited issues -- whether to open meetings with a prayer and rules on when clubs can meet -- the demonstrators said the discussion portends a deeper assault on their faith.

"To take away the only thing in school that actually means something to us is wrong," said Nicole Williams, a student at Lecanto High School and member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

The students' defense is simple: What is wrong with spreading the love of Jesus?

"My job is to bring people to the faith of God, or at least expose them to it," said Gene Himmel, 14, president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Inverness Middle School.

An FCA meeting on the day before winter break drew criticism from board member Carol Snyder, who questioned the timing of a religious event during the school day when other children had to be in class.

Snyder, a new member to the School Board and Citrus County, also has taken issue with the prayer before the School Board meetings. Invoking Jesus can exclude other faiths, she says.

"We should be allowed to have prayer in our schools," said Frank Shevitz, 48, who has a child at Lecanto High School. "That's what our country was founded on, religious freedom. Even on coinage it says "In God We Trust.' "

Vonderhaar, 20, a sophomore at Central Florida Community College, played the role of cheerleader, running up and down the line of people and urging them to pray and sing songs.

"If we stand up, whether we are 10,000 people or 10 people, we are standing for God and that is awesome," Vonderhaar said. "There is such a need for God. Our young people, they are on drugs and a mess. They need something more than sex that they can be passionate about."

Heads bowed, the group outside called on God to bring the School Board guidance. One woman, wearing a purple shirt that read "Jesus Saves," said: "Lord, we thank you for this opportunity to come out and stand up for you. We praise you Jesus, hallelujah."

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